I’m not saying I know everything about coconut palms and coconuts, but I do feel I have a decent working knowledge. This all comes courtesy of being with Joe, a palm enthusiast, for 35 years and gardening with him in South Florida for 8 of those years. Imagine my surprise when I was on a late-night, channel-surfing expedition and discovered “Les Stroud’s Wild Harvest” on my local PBS station and something entirely new about coconuts — at least to Joe and me.
The show is part travelogue, part cooking instruction, and a complete celebration of cultures. Mr. Stroud, along with Chef Paul, travel to locales, where they and local chefs are challenged to prepare dishes using locally sourced ingredients. On the show I caught, the pair was in Belize and one of the ingredients used was coconut apple, which was cut up, eaten raw, and used in a salad.
I had never heard of coconut apple, so I was immediately confused and intrigued. Was it a tropical apple? Was it from a specific type of palm tree that I had never heard of? Did it taste like an apple, a coconut, or somewhere in-between? At that late-night moment, I made it my business to taste coconut apple.
Coconut palms are truly amazing. Nearly everything is useful — the trunks can be used for building, the fronds for thatching and weaving, but it’s the fruit — the coconut — that is truly astonishing. Drinkable and eatable, a coconut is a nutritional feast.
We have two coconut palms growing in our backyard. They swoop out over the canal, and they’re the last two of the 16 we once had until Hurricane Irma raised our anxieties and we removed 14 of them. Now, the last two remaining soar skyward. Each May, we have them trimmed — lower fronds and any coconuts are removed — for hurricane season. By the time the season ends, new clusters of coconuts are already developing.
In order to sample coconut apple, I needed a sprouting coconut. The coconuts currently in our trees are too immature and green. I needed an older coconut, one that had a brown outer shell and was sprouting, ideally about 10” tall, according to Jardinieria On.
Fortunately, coconuts float and there’s always plenty floating up and down the canal with the currents. Often, Joe and I fish these out to sprout them. Sometimes, they’ve already sprouted while floating. (Like I said earlier, they’re astonishing.)
By the time I had heard about coconut apple, two of the rescued palms had sprouted. These I had already planted in shallow pots and they were too mature to be of any use. Shortly after the program aired, though, another had started to sprout.
Now is probably a good time to do a brief botany lesson on the structure of a coconut. I found this illustration online.
As you can see, there’s a lot more to a coconut than the ones sold in supermarkets, which typically sell the endocarp, the small, dark brown seed. In order for me to reach the coconut apple, I needed to get through the woody outer layer (exocarp), the fibrous husk (mesocarp), and then the endocarp.
The coconut apple begins to form once the coconut is separated from the coconut palm. After several months, the coconut water thickens into a sponge-like consistency, eventually becoming the embryo of a new coconut and nourishing it through its early stages of growth.
With that lesson over, it’s time to get back to my coconut apple. After several weeks of growth, it was time for me to take a literal crack at opening up the coconut to reach the coconut apple.
I began by hacking the exocarp with a machete. Not an easy thing to do, but that probably has more to do with my machete skills and fear of losing a finger or two than anything else.
As I chopped and chipped my way through the coconut, I was reminded at how amazing it is that a green coconut sprout can slice through the husk and outer shell as if it were butter, as shown in the photo below (from a previous post).
At some point, I added a pry bar to the equation and slowly worked sections of the exocarp and mesocarp away from the coconut (endocarp).
Then, with a whack, I saw the white endosperm, the edible meat of the coconut. I had shattered a piece of endocarp shell, revealing the coconut apple. In all honesty, the experts made this whole process look easy and, I will say, elegant — as if they were tapping around a hard-boiled egg and gently removing the shell. I, on the other hand, was a sweaty mess and my coconut didn’t look much better.
A short while later, I had peeled back enough to see and ultimately remove the coconut apple. Its surface had a yellow tint to it — and this tasted almost bitter and earthy.
The white stuff, though — spongy, airy, and with a consistency of fine Styrofoam — didn’t taste like apple or coconut. It was, instead, subtly sweet. As I chewed it, it seemed to melt the way cotton candy does — but unlike spun sugar, it’s more nutritious. Coconut apple, like coconut water, coconut milk, and coconut meat, has a long list of health benefits, including high amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, vitamin C, and other minerals.
After my taste test, I looked down at the coconut sprout, beaten, battered, and separated from the embryo that nourished it. According to the experts, the downfall of harvesting the coconut apple was that the coconut sprout had to be sacrificed.
My little sprout had some decent roots, though. On this day of experimentation, I thought I’d give this little palm a chance at living, and I planted it in a pot filled with fresh potting soil. As of this writing, it’s still alive, although some of the older outer leaves have turned brown. The center leaves are still green. Each day, I look to see if any new growth is emerging from the center, but I’m not holding out much hope. It was a brutal separation.
At the end of the day, I’m glad I tried coconut apple . . . but would I eat it again? Since it’s labor intensive, I don’t think I’ll ever be a coconut-apple-a-day kind of guy. Besides, when I get hungry, I like to eat at that moment — and not spend a good chunk of time chopping, hacking, pounding, and prying open the package to get to the sweet treat. On the other hand, if I honed my machete skills . . . maybe?
Whether or not I make coconut apple a staple of my diet, one thing is for sure. It’s just one more reason to admire the incredible, edible, usable coconut.